How far can we truly go to gain knowledge within psychology?

 Science Vs Ethics

Ethical issues can arise when carrying out important research studies due to developing conflicting values between the researcher’s requirement to carrying out a scientifically valid piece of research, and the need to protect the rights of the participant(s) involved. To consider the cost-benefit analysis ( finding a balance between the scientific benefits of the research versus the ethical costs of the procedure)  is one way to evaluate this ongoing conflict, however, many people find it difficult to agree on just exactly what the ‘right balance’ is.

Milgram’s study on obedience is a great example of a study which brought scientific benefits at the cost of being frequently criticised for the many ethical issues which arose. If you are unfamiliar with this particular study carried out by Milgram, you can read up about it on the following website:

So, what scientific benefits did Milgram’s research bring to psychology?

Milgram’s obedience study led to a large number of subsequent studies which is very desirable within psychology as such replications allow enhancement of our understanding of  particular behaviours. Furthermore, the findings from the study were counter-intuitive due to the fact that the initial interviews carried out by Milgram suggested that people would not be willing to obey unjust orders, but the results displayed the importance of situational factors.

But, such advantages of the study came at some major ethical costs…

During Milgram’s obedience study critics have suggested that participants suffered psychological harm and had a lack of right to withdraw. Participants showed anxiety as they were observed to ‘sweat, tremble and stutter’ and despite being told at the beginning that they could stop the experiment at any time, they were urged to continue throughout the procedure through prompts that told them they ‘must continue’, therefore making the task appear to be involuntary and pushing the participants to make stressful decisions unwillingly.

So was this an equal balance of scientific benefits Vs ethical costs?

How far can ethical boundaries be pushed in search of great science?

I believe that, within reason, there should be less restrictive ethical boundaries within psychology. Without these restrictions, psychologists could put their full effort and attention into their studies and draw out far greater scientific findings.

However, when questioning just how far too far is, in terms of ignoring ethical guidelines, I believe that there is no standard response. Yet in my opinion, a research finding which creates more harm to people than it does benefit, is not a useful finding at all.

Thanks for reading!

Feel free to comment/constructively criticise/discuss,

Nathalie :]


About Nathalie Lauren Joyce

19. First year @ Bangor University. Psychology Blogger.

7 responses to “How far can we truly go to gain knowledge within psychology?

  1. litsasourla

    I agree that it is particularly difficult to have one universal cut off point where something becomes ‘too unethical’. And i also agree that if there was a cut- off point it would not be approved universally as psychology is up for a lot of criticism. I do however believe that it is important that psychologists use the cost-benefit analysis as their guideline in order to ensure that the participants’ human rights are not threatened and to also guarantee that psychological studies as not a waste of time. An example where the cost and benefits did not add up is in ‘The Monster study’ whereby due to the amoun of psychological harm, the study was hidden away from the public in order to prevent public humiliation this is an example where psychology would not progress if there was no balance between the costs and benefits. Overall, I enjoyed your article as it was well written and interesting to follow!

  2. I agree completely that ethical guidelines should be better adapted in order to allow psychologists greater freedom to delve into new areas of human behaviour and gain a better insight into them, but also with the fact that research which causes more harm to participants than creates good does not make the findings worthwhile. But I do think finding the right balance between ethical cost and scientific benefit is difficult, nearly impossible as ethical values/morals are subjective and vary from person to person, as one person may consider Milgram’s research to be too unethical due to psychological stress placed on participants, whereas another person may argue that nobody was really harmed in the study, so where is the harm? Personally, I believe there will always be some conflict between human, moral and ethical beliefs and scientific beliefs and the desire and curiosity to learn more, which will make it difficult to achieve a perfect balance between ethical cost and scientific benefit.

    • Yes, I think your right! It almost seems impossible to be able to achieve a perfect balance between ethical costs and scientific benefits, simply because everyone adheres to their own personal beliefs and moral grounds. Therefore, it seems any research study carried out will always recieve criticism from others who do not share the same morals. However, criticism can be positive as without it, there is little room for progression.

      So relating back to my inital question: how far can we go to gain knowledge in psychology? I believe that due to the subjective nature of human personality and values it is impossibe to set a boundary that would be accepted by every psychologist; some would believe the boundary was too strict, others would think of it as not strict enough. As long as the study helps us progress as psychologists and the findings are valid, reliable and useful, then it could be argued that no distance is too great when exploring the field of psychology.

  3. psue8c

    I think you make an excellent point about the significance of ethics in the success of psychology research findings. They are a foundation essential to the validity of data collected for research. The use of Milgram’s obedience study is great, it’s an example of the extreme to state how important ethics are in such a study. In my opinion, the amount of knowledge gained through psychology and it’s research depends on what ethics you consider, and ignore. Some people are unaware of ethical issues, hence why they aren’t taken into account in certain studies until later criticism. Psychology in itself creates thought. With so many theories holding their own account of how we behave, think and feel can only advance our thinking and amounts of knowledge with the substantial amount of research being conducted in many areas of psychology. The amount we can gain in knowledge is incredible, seeing as there are so many perspectives that are opened up to you, varying from many backgrounds. Although we can’t be sure, there are so many theories that we can explore to gain more information of the incredible amounts of knowledge psychology has to offer. Ethics give psychology and the participants involved in research the right to still be treated human and us as researchers, students to explore psychology and gain the knowledge we are so eager to gain from it that continually advances.

    • Thank you for your comment! I agree with you, the way psychological research is carried out completely relies on an individual’s perception of ethics and morals. Indeed ethical boundaires give all participants the right to be treated as they should, but the boundary between what is ethical and what is unethical is not argreed upon and therefore some studies can be heavily criticised for going ‘too far’ in order to gain knowledge.

  4. I find this whole topic really interesting and using Milgram’s study to put it into context does really help illuminate some of the key arguments. Reading your blog and thinking about the topic of ethics has made me question whether psychology would be psychology if it weren’t for the restrictions imposed by ethics. I think it’s arguable that if it weren’t for the restrictions of ethics and indeed our own moral codes, we (as psychologists) would be too tempted by our striving for ultimate understanding and knowledge that we would push boundaries too far (are Milgram and ZImbardo not perfect examples of this?) ignoring our own moral objections and issues of conscience which in essence are part of what make us human. So if we let go of our humanity and ignored human rights would we really be studying human behaviour? Could we still justifiably call our practises and research Psychology?

    • That’s a really interesting point! By ignoring human rights when carrying out studies using human participants, we would not in fact be studying actual human behaviour would we? Zimbardo’s prison study is an excellent example of what happens to people who lose sight of their moral objections and code of ethics (when participants took on the role of the prison officers too literally), so imagine if everybody neglected their moral standards and had no conscience? Psychology, in essence, is all about trying to achieve valid, ethical, reliable results from studies with as little flaws as possible. So, it could be argued that by pushing ethical boundaries as far as depriving participants of their basic human rights, any findings from these studies can not be justified as psychology at all.

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